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Insights on Second Language Acquisition

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Some general knowledge about second language learners and learning can help shape pedagogic choices when teaching international students.

Diversity Among English Language Learners

Students who may be classified as “international” can have a range of backgrounds, which can greatly affect their experiences as language learners. Generally, international students are those who have come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of study. These students typically have F-1 visas and have spent limited time, or in some cases no time at all, in the U.S. before beginning their coursework. Other students who grew up abroad have lived in the U.S. for a number of years before entering higher education, possibly completing some or all of their secondary educations in the U.S. These students, who are probably better understood as immigrant students rather than international students, may also have family in the U.S. 

"Ear" Learners and "Eye" Learners

In terms of language learning, these two groups often have diverse experiences. In the case of international students who have come to the U.S. only to study, they have typically learned English as part of schooling overseas. Applied linguist Joy Reid has famously called these students “eye learners,” since their encounters with English have often been through formal education—similar to the language education experiences of primary and secondary school students in the U.S. who might take classes in Spanish or Chinese. Immigrant students, on the other hand, have typically learned much of their English simply by being present in the U.S., which is why Reid refers to them as “ear learners.” Neither “eye learning” nor “ear learning” is a better way to acquire language skills, but each method produces different results. Learning through being around English extensively in everyday life often leads to excellent listening comprehension skills and fluent speaking. Learning through formal study, on the other hand, can lead to strong grammatical knowledge, effective academic reading skills, and deep awareness of academic vocabulary.       

For faculty working with both international students and immigrant students, sometimes in the same classroom, awareness of such differences can be helpful. For example, an immigrant student who is an “ear learner” may be very comfortable participating in classroom discussions, but the same student may feel challenged by difficult reading or writing tasks. An “eye learner” international student who has just arrived to the U.S. from abroad may have strong academic reading skills and knowledge of specialized vocabulary, but may feel intimidated or lost during classroom conversations. Faculty can utilize such knowledge to create pedagogic spaces where diverse types of English language learners have chances to excel on the basis of existing skills and develop new proficiencies where they may have weaknesses.   

Language Learning as a Process

In the case of all language learners, an important insight from the field of language acquisition is that developing advanced skills in a second or additional language is a slow and incremental process. As described by educational linguist Jim Cummins, achieving high-level academic proficiency in as second language can take from seven to nine years. This means that international students should not be expected to make dramatic linguistic strides within the scope of a single academic term or possibly even a single academic year. Any college class should be seen as offering a small step forward on a much longer trajectory of linguistic development. 

One key aspect of this trajectory is the acquisition of new grammatical forms. As most people know from studying foreign languages, learning unfamiliar grammatical forms can be a demanding, and sometimes daunting, endeavor. (Indeed, many people have negative memories of learning language in school, where there is sometimes more emphasis on memorizing grammatical rules than actually communicating with the language.) Even theoretical knowledge about such forms—gained through learning lists or tables—does not assure accurate usage of those forms when speaking or writing. Thus, the grammatical errors made by second language learners are a completely normal and natural aspect of the language acquisition process.

Applied linguists sometimes refer to learner language as “interlanguage,” a term used by Larry Selinker to situate linguistic development on a continuum. Most second language learners will continue to use an evolving interlanguage for many years, and very few will ever achieve “native-like” proficiency with grammar. However, this should not be seen as limiting students’ abilities to use language effectively.

In the case of writing, international students often want constructive feedback on their errors, so that they can advance their grammatical knowledge and move further along the trajectory of language acquisition. Also, if given helpful feedback and more time for revisions, many international student writers can improve the grammatical accuracy of their texts, so that they are at least close to the kinds of texts produced by the U.S.-born peers.

In the case of speaking, there is usually less expectation that spoken language will be error-free. Indeed, many people in the U.S. are fairly tolerant of spoken English that does not conform precisely to the grammatical forms used by native speakers. Furthermore, among English native speakers in the U.S., there is already rich diversity.

High Linguistic Tolerance, High Academic Expectations

Showing tolerance towards the developing English language abilities of international students should be seen as a crucial aspect of creating a supportive learning environment in the global classroom. Since second language learning is a slow, multi-year process, it is not realistic to expect that students who have not grown up in English-dominant environments will have the same language skills as their U.S.-born peers, many of whom have spent their lives in English-dominant environments. Showing tolerance towards students’ language abilities might mean giving students more time to prepare and revise written assignments, offering constructive and supportive feedback on grammatical errors, and taking active measures to assure that all students have a fair chance to understand and participate in discussions.

It also means taking on more of the “communicative burden,” a phrase used by linguist Rosina Lippi-Green. As she explains, in all of our everyday interactions, we must decide how much responsibility we are willing assume to achieve effective communication. In the case of a native speaker interacting with a non-native speaker, the native speaker must be ready to assume a heightened level of responsibility. This is certainly the case when a faculty member interacts with—or reads a paper by—a student who uses English as a second or additional language.

Showing tolerance towards students’ use of language does not mean lowering expectations for strong academic work. Taking such an approach would be unfair to everyone, including international students. Linguistic tolerance and high academic expectations are completely compatible. The role of faculty is finding ways to accommodate English language learners’ developing skills while also pushing for intellectual and academic excellence.     


Cummins, Jim. 1979. “Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Development of Bilingual Children.” Review of Educational Research 49, no. 2: 222–251.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in The United States. New York: Routledge.

Reid, Joy. 1998. “‘Eye’ Learners and ‘Ear’ Learners: Identifying the Language Needs of International Students and U.S. Resident Writers.” In Grammar in the Composition Classroom, ed. Joy M. Reid and Patricia Byrd, 3–17. New York: Heinle and Heinle.

Selinker, Larry. 1972. “Interlanguage.” International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 10: 209–32.

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